Italy, hitherto an agglomeration of fiefdoms united only in collective imagination, became an unexpected geopolitical reality in 1860. King Vittorio Emanuele II’s troops battling against Austrian forces along the Lombard border in the north and Garibaldi’s march with his thousand men across Bourbon Sicily in the south coalesced to form the nation. One by one, the populations of the peninsular states declared their adherence to the guiding Savoy monarchy of Piedmont, which offered the nascent state a mature governing system, its only indigenous royal line, and a monumental city, Turin, as a capital.
Main streets and central piazza everywhere across the new country were dedicated to the king and others renamed “del Plebiscito,” “dell’Indipendenza,” “dell’Unita.” Governing seats, monuments, and museums were forged in styles designed to evoke historical memory. National identity was fostered through the manipulation of architecture and the configuration of urban space as didactic instruments in building a collective consciousness of recent events.
In contrast to many other Italian cities, Palermo enjoyed direct connections to European culture and trade, thanks to its coastal position, along with a well-developed entrepreneurial class. Its 1848 revolutionary government was one of the few to leave an indelible mark upon its city during that brief republican interlude – the broad “Strada della Liberta,” which extended beyond the city walls. (The restored Bourbons renamed the street.) When Garibaldi entered the city in May 1860, he established a commission to demolish fortification walls, plan traffic arteries, and build markets and workers’ housing. Architect Giovanni Battista Filippo Basile was nominated as the head of the new municipal development board in 1863; he had followed Garibaldi across Sicily, studying the island’s ancient architecture along the way. For King Vittorio Emanuele II’s entry into Palermo, he designed a triumphal arch, a Trajanic column, and a patriotic altar. Basile helped develop a master plan for Palermo with a rettifilo, Via Roma, through the lower port area, but its implementation was delayed by corrupt city administrators with vested interests in an unregulated real estate boom.
What Palermo lacked was prominent public buildings. As if to fend off an inevitable provincialism, given its peripheral location within the new nation, the Palermo city council decided to erect the country’s largest theater, the Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele II. An international design competition was convened. Charles Garnier and Karl Friedrich Schinkel were invited to serve on the jury, but declined. In the end, the city fathers cajoled Gottfried Semper, who built the acclaimed Dresden Theater, Mariano Falcini of Florence, and local engineer Saverio Cavallari to serve on the three-person panel. Of the thirty-five entries, they chose one by Basile: “encouraging proof of an incredibly robust renewal of the arts,” according to Semper. Basile synthesized the century’s cumulative design experience with a grand columnar exterior that brings to mind Sicily’s ancient temples. The ample distribution and structural articulation of its spaces confirm a diligent study of Garnier and Semper. Iron was used in the construction of the central dome. The theater’s stark classical styling had, for the architect, declaredly political overtones, its “eminently Italic” elements “appropriate in this epoch of Italian renewal.” The theater was slow in construction and was finished after the architect’s death in 1897.
On the same street, but at the other end of the cultural spectrum, a popular Politeama, or multifunctional playhouse, was built and dedicated, appropriately, to Garibaldi. Giuseppe Damiani Almeyda, engineer in the city administration, combined references to the Colosseum with a circus-like polychromy. He also used iron extensively throughout the structure.
Adapted from Unification and the Nation’s Capitals, 1860-1900, The Architecture of Modern Italy 2005
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